Strategic Courage

Strategic leaders depend on a series of abilities in order to make sense of the operational environment, define a way forward and ultimately compel others to follow. But the leader’s ability to deliver a strategy depends on a paramount quality without which there would be no first step in the strategic journey: courage. Courage is […]


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Atomic Traits of Strategic Leaders

Abstract: Effective strategies are delivered by strategic leaders, individuals able to grasp the big picture and produce a way forward that ultimately solves the critical challenges of an organization. What are the characteristics specific to strategic leaders as opposed to general leadership traits? I am sure various sectors of our society can deliver relevant answers […]

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Competitors and Customers: Understanding Through Collaborative Frameworks

Idea in Brief: Strategic frameworks consolidate data into strategic insights. Based on respective orientations, strategists develop particular expertise in different arenas of social life. However, organizations often need frameworks from another discipline in order to complement their own expertise and develop holistic understanding of the operational environment. This article combined two such frameworks with the primary focus of combining customer and competition analysis.


“As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” -Amy Poehler

I recently spend a week attending “Kellogg on Branding”, an executive education program at Northwestern University. Throughout my time in Evanston, I was impressed by the phenomenal cadre of instructors and brand experts from many industries and cultures. Inspired by the multitude of insight tools used in the marketing community, I decided to further connect the dots and see where their expertise might benefit efforts in my discipline, regional security. Below is an initial effort.

If strategists are explorers, frameworks represent their vessels they use to explore and gather knowledge from competitive seas. There are many types of competition. War is one of its extreme forms, led by nation states with each other (and sometimes with rogue paramilitary units). Competition in the marketplace is another example, usually less malign, and hopefully resulting in increased value for consumers. However, both cases have similar components, including attackers and defendants. Strategists in both international affairs and marketing employ frameworks to understand the nature of the component parts and derive useful plan of action, be it to defend or attack. The multitude and variety of frameworks used by military and business strategists offer areas of potential synergy.

One such area is the analysis of competitive effects on a given population. While marketing has long established processes for analyzing popular opinion, military operations also operate in the human context. The difference in perspectives lies in the focus of the two disciplines. Marketing analysis focuses on the consumer, while military strategy centers primarily on competition. Combining results from the two respective can increase understanding of both consumers (local population) and the competitors(the enemy). In this paper, I am briefly covering two such frameworks and potential areas of integration. The military framework is commonly called “centers of gravity analysis”. The marketing framework is the “value proposition” used to focus marketing strategy on the benefits to a consumer segment.

From the military corner: Centers of Gravity

Karl von Clausewitz, Prussian military strategists, introduced centers of gravity (in German –Schwerpunkt) as a framework to analyze the competitive source of power. Definition according to Strange and Iron: “Centers of gravity (COGs) are the characteristics, capabilities, or locations from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight.” These centers include political, social and economic dimensions. Much like brands, they often are intangible. When determining a campaign strategy, military planners identify enemy and friendly centers of gravity. Next, they dissect these power nods into critical capabilities, critical requirements and critical vulnerabilities. Exploiting the critical vulnerabilities disrupts the centers of gravity and ultimately defeats the enemy. Objectives are derived from this analysis. In a classic example, Napoleon’s superb army (with its energy, talent and motivation), was an operational center of gravity of the French invading Russia in 1812. This COG depended on logistics as critical capabilities, transportation vehicles as critical requirements, and long supply lines as critical vulnerabilities. Disrupting the supply lines could undermine the campaign and potential force a retreat. In business, a competitive launch of a rival product may need a clear explanation of the points of parity with an existing product. Negating this parity may be all it takes for an established leader to prevent a successful launch and maintain market dominance.

Some of the characteristics of COGs are:

– They exist at strategic, operational and tactical levels

– Strategic COGs tend to be intangible in nature

– They often depend on factors such as time and space

– They are sources of leverage

– They are transitory in nature

– They should be linked to objectives in the campaign plan

Centers of gravity are very effective at revealing vulnerabilities of self and competitive position. However, they only deal laterally with a very important third element – local population. An important part of competition deals with legitimacy from the perspective of the local population. Although wars are fought between military forces, the non-combatants usually play an important role in the resolution of conflict and subsequent reconstruction. In many cases, level of popular support may determine not only the campaign, but the level of conflict itself. Understanding regional cultures may in fact prevent conflict altogether. While military strategists are very used to analyzing competitors, marketing analysis focuses much more on permeating and understanding local culture. Much like the military analysis, business marketers practice and adapt their frameworks in the competitive landscape that define their profession. And in their world, customer is the ultimate delineator between winners and losers.

From the marketing corner: Value proposition

Professor Alice Tybout of Kellogg School of Management cites positioning fundamentals as key to articulating the way in which a firm can offer differentiated value to target consumers. Marketers use segmentation, targeting and positioning in order to create a customer. Using a combination of these elements, they further develop a value proposition for the particular customer segment. The positioning statement is an overarching, yet succinct value proposition encompassing several key attributes. This effort focuses marketing efforts towards the essential competitive elements that differentiate one’s offering from the competition.

Key attributes of the position statement are:

– Target audience

– Frame of reference (including points of parity)

– Points of difference

– Reason to believe

An example of positioning statement comes from “Kellogg on Branding”. The authors offer DeWalt power tools positioning (attributes descriptions in parentheses): “To the tradesman who uses his power tools to make a living and cannot afford downtime on the job (target), DeWalt professional power tools (frame of reference) are more dependable than other brands of professional power tools (point of difference) because they are engineered to the brand’s historic high quality standards and are backed by Black & Decker’s extensive service network and guarantee to repair or replace any tool within 48 hours (reasons to believe).”

The benefits of value proposition go beyond marketing. In any organization, being able to articulate value added for the upstream stakeholder’s point of view can be critical to mission success. It also forces the organization to consider the customers, or stakeholders’ views. In the military, such perspective can significantly alter the way an operation is conducted, and the local support our warriors may ultimately gain.

Putting it all together: The above mentioned frameworks complement each other’s focus. They can be integrated either sequentially or in supporting roles in order to holistically define this environment. Centers of gravity can support other competitive analysis in finding important sources of differentiation for the positioning statement. The positioning statement can offer a mean to protect or attack a critical vulnerability of an enemy by defining a superior value proposition to local population. For both military and business strategists, sound understandings of the cultural, political and economic situation on the ground define the centers of gravity and the ensuing opportunities to capitalize on any existing vulnerabilities. At the same time, local culture determines the level of competition. And in both cases, local population plays an important role in defining a winning strategy. Such strategy can be based on a combination of clearly defined centers of gravity, followed by a concise value proposition addressing each center.

Hypothetical market example: Your firm considers introducing a low budget car in an emerging market. Your operations department has a powerful center of gravity – an efficient and scalable production line for such cars. You also have a critical requirement (mass delivery of vehicles in order to achieve scale). The critical requirements include infrastructure and product operation knowledge. Further analysis of the critical requirements exposes two critical vulnerabilities: weak infrastructure (roads) in the local area, as well as limited knowledge of car operations by the target segment (which mostly uses motorcycles and mopeds). Competitors can certainly exploit these vulnerabilities through messaging. Beyond communication, these vulnerabilities may hamper your launch simply through their existence, as consumers can easily recognize the obstacles on their own.

Military example: A paramilitary group conducts deliberate attacks with the goal to destabilize a certain government and increase its influence in a region. The central government has limited budget and weak regional reach. You are assigned as a liaison to the respective national government with the task to support its Air Force build adequate surveillance and situational awareness in the area. Should your goal be the delivery of surveillance equipment and training? Using marketing perspectives (segmentation, targeting and positioning), you discover that regional population suffers due to lack of proper medical care. Village elders in particular are under stress to address such problems. Air transport of medical supplies would significantly improve their condition. Winning local support would significantly increase local government’s situational awareness far beyond the capabilities of any air platform. A transport aircraft may bring more benefits. The security cooperation plan should therefore include mobility aircraft and medical training. The position statement: “to the village elders in region X, our outreach delivers increased access to critical medical support using light transport aircraft. We will deliver this capability through partnership with local military, trained in the specific flight delivery systems by our experts.” While such an effort initially supports a functional attribute of the local population (health), it can also foster emotional connection between village elders and the central government in their communal effort to address regional instability. It is a simplistic example but it hopefully accentuates the importance of formulating a clearly perceived benefit from the point of view of a target audience.

Volumes have been written on both military and marketing strategy. In light of this, the integration of centers of gravity analysis with marketing strategy development is only an example for consideration. The important point is to seek opportunities where such tools, working together, can deliver greater situational awareness than used separately. Collaborative venues such as executive education and industry immersions can facilitate such opportunities. A quote attributed to Darwin states: “It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” I hope such collaboration can take place between various disciplines in our society for our communal benefit.


Joseph I. Strange, Richard Iron, “What Clausewitz Really Meant”, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 35

Tim Calkins, Alice M Tybout, “Kellogg on Branding”, Wiley, 2005

Kevin Lane Keller, Brian Sternthal, Alice Tybout, “Three Questions You need to Ask About Your Brand”, HBR, Sep, 2002

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Organizational DNA

Change is inevitable. Adaptation to change is not. Most often, humans have the choice to adapt or resist. For those choosing to welcome change, how and when they act has a lot to do with their success rate. In order to increase their odds of success, transformation leaders should approach change management as humbly as […]

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